Art of Elan’s Bouquet of Surprising New Music at the San Diego Museum of Art

Commissions are indeed a risky business: the buyer is putting good money down on an unknown product. So I am happy to report that Tuesday’s premiere of Rand Steiger’s chamber work Grace at the San Diego Museum of Art proved that the chamber ensemble Art of Elan wisely invested donor Sam Ersan’s generous financial support.

(l. to r.) Andrea Overturf, Demarre McGill, Julie Smith Phillips & Che-Yen Chen [photo (c.) Sam Zauscher]

In Steiger’s program notes, he explains “Grace is my love song to California.” Written for the Myriad Trio—violist Che-Yen Chen, flutist Demarre McGill and harpist Julie Smith Phillips—as well as English Horn player Andrea Overturf with the composer modulating these acoustic sounds electronically, Grace is a substantial, densely constructed essay in four unmarked movements that comes in just under 25 minutes.

The opening movement presented rich, sustained clusters, a Steiger trademark, that suffused the museum’s auditorium in a rolling sonic wave, thanks to strategically placed speakers and the composer’s subtle electronic mixing. The work’s visceral effect brought to mind the muscular sonics of Olivier Messiaen’s iconic organ work Apparition of the Eternal Church.

Although a flurry of rapid, angular short motifs opened the second movement, they soon subsided into a less active, more sustained texture accented by McGill’s delicate, hovering tones in the flute’s upper register and Overturf’s resonant mid-range English Horn themes. A more conventional composer might have marked the third movement “Presto” for its rush of anxious, vibrating themes, and the final movement brought back the opening’s resolute calm that evoked the Pacific Ocean on a warm summer afternoon. Steiger centered his finale on a sensuous extended English Horn solo that Overturf played with the voluptuous sonority usually reserved for Silbelius’ beloved swan.

Erin Douglas Dowrey [photo (c.) Sam Zauscher]

Panamanian composer Carlos Camacho’s 2011 Pitying the Farmers includes a clever coup de théâtre that almost guarantees his listeners will never forget this succinct five-minute gem. Percussionist Erin Douglas Dowery began with a high-pitched intonation from a small singing bowl which flutist Rose Lombardo decorated with a flutter of short, low-pitched motifs. She then ceremoniously dumped a cache of large seeds on the head of a horizontally placed bass drum, creating a clatter not unlike rain on a tin roof. But each time Dowrey struck the drum head with large mallets, the seeds danced in mid-air and landed with subsequent splashes of unique clatter. Proper lighting of the bass drum played an important role in this vivid bit of theater. Camacho’s piece then required an array of fierce shrieks that Lombardo executed as artfully as possible, and she was matched by quick percussive retorts from Dowrey. As the saying goes: short but very sweet!

Max Opferkuch [photo (c.) Sam Zauscher]

Michi Wiancko’s 2021 clarinet solo “Island in the Sky” balanced an array of extended techniques that deftly alternated with ingratiating solo flourishes and excited arpeggios, a technique that riveted the listener’s attention—as if that were a problem considering clarinetist Max Opferkuch’s lush timbre and impeccable phrasing.

Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker opened this Art of Elan program with John Luther Adams’ “The Light that Fills the World,” a modest, 15-minute work the composer arranged for chamber players from his larger orchestral work finished in 2000. Art of Elan’s six accomplished instrumentalists created a minimalist-approved static tonal cloud filled with shimmering ostinatos from malleted percussion instruments.

This concert was presented by Art of Elan in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Auditorium on Tuesday, May 16, 2023.


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